Netflix viewers want to relive an American Nightmare. The true-crime series — retelling the saga of what had been labeled “the real Gone Girl” case — debuted at No. 1 on the streamer’s U.S. television chart.
According to the streaming platform, the three-part series — directed by Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris — had 21.4 million views between Jan. 15 and Jan. 21. Not only was it a very popular watch in the U.S., but it was the top global English-language show as well. Overall, it was in the top 10 in 88 countries.
What’s American Nightmare about?
The docuseries looks at the March 23, 2015, kidnapping of Denise Huskins from the Vallejo, Calif., home she shared with her then-boyfriend, Aaron Quinn. It revisits the criminal investigation, which saw Quinn become the prime suspect as he detailed how people in wetsuits with laser pointers woke them up, bound them, covered their eyes with swim goggles, put headphones on them playing a prerecorded message and sedated them with cough medicine. Huskins’s kidnappers demanded an $8,500 ransom, and Quinn was left with a video camera pointed at him — and the threat to not call the authorities. He ultimately called the police anyway.
Quinn was interrogated for 18 hours by Vallejo police and the FBI. It was clear they didn’t believe his story, suggesting that he killed Huskins amid a domestic dispute. Quinn was grilled about their relationship and revealed that he started dating Huskins after splitting with live-in ex-fiancée Andrea Roberts in September 2014. The three, all physical therapists, worked together, leading investigators to develop a love-triangle theory, thinking the kidnapping was fake. Quinn eventually retained an attorney. When his phone was given back to him, he realized that — despite telling police that he believed the kidnappers were going to call — his phone had been put in airplane mode and they missed three calls from the kidnappers that could have been tracked. Meanwhile, an audio “proof of life” file of Huskins saying she was alive was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle.
On March 25, 48 hours after being taken, Huskins materialized 400 miles away in Huntington Beach, Calif., where she grew up. She was released by her captors, despite the ransom not being paid, and walked to her father’s home. Huskins appeared unharmed, but later — after retaining her own counsel — she revealed she had been raped twice by a kidnapper, who videotaped it and threatened to release it on the internet if she told police. She also said the man, who claimed to be part of a black market company that kidnaps people for money, told her the intended target was actually Quinn’s ex-fiancée, Roberts.
The police held a news conference and deemed the case a hoax, calling it “an orchestrated event and not a kidnapping.” They said Quinn and Huskins “plundered valuable resources away from our community” and had “taken the focus away from the true victims of our community.” They demanded an apology from the couple. The thriller film Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, had come out in October 2014, based on the Gillian Flynn book. Huskins’s kidnapping was dubbed “the real Gone Girl ” case in the media.
Upset the crime was being called a hoax, a person who identified himself as one of the kidnappers emailed the San Francisco Chronicle in late March to confirm his role in the crime. He claimed the kidnapping was carried out by three people and sent photos as well as other information that connected them to the case. The email said if Huskins and Quinn didn’t get an apology from police, they would commit the crime again. Fast-forward to June 5, 10 weeks after Huskins was released, when a Dublin, Calif., couple called police saying there was a similar break-in with someone attempting to abduct their daughter, who was in her 20s. The criminal was chased off but left a phone behind that was traced to Matthew Muller.
Muller, a former Marine and a Harvard Law graduate, was tracked to his family’s South Lake Tahoe cabin by Dublin Police and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. Investigators found laptops, cellphones, stun guns, ski masks, a laser pointer and duct-taped swim goggles with a blond strand of hair. Later, it was determined that one of the laptops was stolen from Quinn. There were also video recordings of Muller sexually assaulting Huskins, and the GPS on a stolen car outside had the Huntington Beach address where Huskins was dropped off.
Muller was arrested by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and later the FBI. He pleaded guilty in Sacramento federal court to kidnapping for ransom and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He later pleaded no contest in Solano County to forcible rape, robbery and burglary in exchange for a 31-year sentence that runs concurrently. Muller is serving his prison sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Ariz., with a 2049 release date.
Who appears in the docuseries?
Huskins and Quinn both relive their nightmare, giving new interviews about what happened. At the start of the docuseries, you have no idea whether they’re still together, but it becomes clear that they are. They’re now married and have two daughters, ages 4 and 1.
The couple sued the Vallejo Police Department for defamation, for branding the crime a hoax, and received $2.5 million in a settlement. They have gone on to become victim advocates and co-authored the book Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors. Their lawyers and several of their family members gave new interviews for the documentary as well.
The filmmakers — who were behind The Tinder Swindler — said they reached out to Vallejo police to appear in the project, but they declined. “There’s a real missed opportunity here for law enforcement to be humble and admit that they made mistakes and share with us how they’re trying to remedy these kinds of errors so that they don’t happen again,” Higgins told Variety. “Unfortunately, they didn’t take that opportunity.” (Six years after the kidnapping, the new police chief apologized in 2021.)
The FBI also declined to participate. In the docuseries, it’s noted that FBI agent David Sesma, who interrogated Quinn, had a conflict of interest because he was romantically involved with Quinn's ex-fiancée, Roberts.
Roberts didn’t participate either. “I think she probably was dragged into it more than she ever wanted to be in the first place,” Higgins told Variety. “We obviously knew that she had nothing to do with it. It was just a terrible set of coincidences.”
Higgins added, “There’s no reason to believe that David or Andrea had anything to do with anything that happened. That was an unfortunate set of coincidences, but nonetheless, there should be a bar when it comes to integrity, and that clearly was not reached on many, many occasions during this investigation.”
Law enforcement members who did participate include then-Dublin Police detective (now sergeant) Misty Carausu, whose crackerjack investigating after the June attempted kidnapping connected Muller to similar cases and then eventually to Huskins’s kidnapping. Also, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Captain Miguel Campos appeared in the series, having also worked on connecting the cases.
A woman named Tracey, who experienced a break-in very similar to the other cases, told her story as well.
Henry Lee who reported on the case for the San Francisco Chronicle — getting emails from the kidnapper — also appeared in the project.
Muller is not interviewed in the docuseries. After he pleaded guilty, he gave a 2018 interview from prison in which he claimed he was innocent. The former attorney — who is bipolar and suffers from Gulf War syndrome — said he pleaded guilty only because he felt bad for the couple.
No other suspects have been arrested in the case.
American Nightmare is streaming on Netflix.